MfE, ERMA and MED need to protect ozone layer and community health now

Following two court decisions within a week, both strongly in favour of limiting the release of ozone destroying gases into the environment, the Soil & Health Association of New Zealand is calling on the Ministry for the Environment(MfE), the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) and Ministry of Economic Development (MED) to put an immediate stop to the reckless release of methyl bromide gas at New Zealand ports.

Methyl bromide is mostly used for log fumigation at New Zealand ports. Its use has increased by more than 300% since 2001, even though methyl bromide fumigation is no longer used in horticulture, and an alternative toxin, phosphine, is sometimes used for log fumigation. A further huge increase in log exports requiring phytosanitary fumigation is expected in the next few years.

The Environment Court made a decision limiting the permitted release of the neurotoxic, ozone-depleting methyl bromide fumigant at Port Nelson. This decision is premised on the introduction of the recapture of unused gas and includes strict limits on worker and community exposure.

Almost simultaneously, a prosecution brought by the Ministry of Economic Development for reckless discharge of an ozone-depleting substance, resulted in the conviction and fining of two refrigeration engineers $750 plus court costs each. The engineers had released the refrigerant chlorodifluoromethane, an HCFC gas, which must not be discharged under the Ozone Layer Protection Act 1996.

Although methyl bromide is also an ozone depleting gas, its use is less restricted, because of its frequent use as a phytosanitary fumigant. Soil & Health has regularly pointed out this contradiction.

“Regarding the charges of reckless discharge of an ozone depleting substance, the MED director was quoted as saying the protection of the ozone layer was an important priority, but MED is not charging those with a continuing history of releasing vast volumes of methyl bromide recklessly at ports throughout New Zealand,” says Soil & Health spokesperson Steffan Browning.

“While the refrigeration engineers deserved being convicted, MED should now look very closely at fumigating company Genera’s log fumigation operations. I suggest Port Wellington and Port Tauranga just for starters.”

“At the recent Rail & Maritime Transport Union conference’s methyl bromide forum, the Genera representative was challenged directly by Port Tauranga delegates, when the representative said all large fumigations were monitored closely. The delegates had never seen any monitoring by Genera when tarpaulins were removed from large piles of logs, allowing methyl bromide to be released into the air.”

“My experience with Wellington’s Centre Port was similar,” said Mr Browning. “Until Soil & Health began lobbying against the reckless discharge of methyl bromide adjacent to Waterloo Quay and Westpac Stadium, Genera rarely used any warning signage, failed to monitor correctly, and discharged near unprotected port workers and without stopping internal port traffic.”

“ All this, even though Genera were stopped from fumigation in Port Marlborough’s Shakespeare Bay because of a lack of appropriate controls. Soil & Health had brought this to the attention of authorities. At the same time Genera were involved with an Environment Court hearing in Nelson where substantive evidence pointed out the health risks and showed the unpredictable movement of the neurotoxic, carcinogenic gas that has no odour, taste or colour.”

“Genera appear to only take worker safety even vaguely seriously when confronted port by port. It is beholden on MfE, MED, ERMA and occupational health officers to lift their game and stop this company from its reckless behaviour. If its clean green approach to climate change is to be taken seriously, Government must insist that the log industry, fumigators, and the ports urgently implement fumigant gas recapture technology. Methyl bromide contributes to global warming by weakening the UV limiting atmospheric ozone layer.”

ERMA, who is to begin a 2-½ year process reassessing methyl bromide’s use and controls, is also developing an interim Code of Practice – The Control and Safe Use of Fumigants.

“If ERMA is to live up to its name, the Environmental Risk Management Authority, and not under a recent misnomer the Economic Risk Management Authority, it must implement urgent and effective environmental and community health standards. It must not recommend anything less than the Environment Court.”

“ERMA’s draft Code of Practice must urgently reflect the decision of the Environment Court. The most current and detailed evidence available on the safe use of methyl bromide was considered and accepted by the Court,” said Mr Browning. “However a strong direction from the Ministry for the Environment that an acute exposure level be incorporated into ERMA’s Code of Practise will be necessary for the Code of Practise to be effective.”

“MfE must also assist local authorities to ensure that commodity log exports do not come first, over community protection, and that local authorities air plans include ERMA’s Code of Practice and are not left impotent in enforcement proceedings.”

“Soil & Health is committed to removal of ozone depleting neurotoxic fumigants from our clean green environment and aims for an Organic 2020.”

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